Intervention for expressive language difficulties in children


Speech Pathologists often use the term “expressive language” to describe a child’s ability to verbally communicate. But what does this term mean?  How do we improve a child’s expressive language?  Why is developing expressive language important? The aim of this month’s professional development at Gameplan was to investigate the evidence for intervention approaches to improving children’s expressive language skills.

What is expressive language?

Expressive language refers to the ability to express our thoughts (both verbally and through writing), whilst using correct grammar, word endings, appropriate vocabulary and sequencing of ideas. It is our output - what we say, and how we say it. Language can be divided into three main areas: form, content and use. More information can be found on the ASHA website:

Language is the building block on which reading and writing are built. There is a strong correlation between vocabulary and later reading ability. Not only that, but a strong vocabulary allows us be effective verbal communicators, as well as proficiently express our ideas in the written form.

Bloom, L. and Lahey, M. (1978) Language Development and Language Disorders New York: Wiley.

Bloom, L. and Lahey, M. (1978) Language Development and Language Disorders New York: Wiley.

What is the evidence for intervention?

This month, the Gameplan team read and discussed recent journal articles on areas of interest related to language interventions.

Some of the findings that we found interesting were:

  • Vocabulary development in young children (preschool) is very important for language development. It should focus on short term, intensive conversation approaches. This includes asking open-ended questions (e.g. What did he do next?), as well as recasting of words or phrases (e.g. “big car;” “Yes, that is a big fast car.”) This increases exposure to more vocabulary and models grammatically correct sentences (Ruston & Schwanenflugel, 2010).
  • Learning new words requires a strong network of semantic (word) and phonological (sound) knowledge. For example, if we take the word “cat,” the network of connections surrounding this word are: semantic -  (a cat is an animal/kitten); morphological (cat is a noun and singular) and phonological information (the first sound in "cat" is /k/). By building strong semantic relationships between words, it is easier to retrieve them when we need them (Zens, Gillon & Morgan, 2009).
  • When teaching grammar to school age children, there are two main approaches: implicit and explicit. Through the implicit approach, the clinician models the correct grammar and rephrases the child’s utterance. Explicit approaches involve direct teaching of correct/incorrect grammar and describing why. This includes the use of Colourful Semantics and Shape Coding. The evidence has shown that implicit approaches work well for pre-school and early school-aged children, while the explicit approaches can help school-age children, and those of secondary age with difficulties understanding language (Ebbels, 2013).
  • Phonological awareness (the ability to manipulate sounds in words) and semantic interventions (vocabulary) have shown to improve word learning to some degree. Improving children’s phonological awareness skills improves their ability to learn new words. It primes them to be attuned to the sounds in words, helping them to build stronger connections of words (Zens, Gillon & Morgan, 2009).

Helpful resources and tips:

  • With younger children, ask them to identify the sounds in spoken words (e.g. first/middle/last), as well as words that rhyme.
  • Read books that incorporate rhyme, sounds ("oink", "choochoo") and make an effort to discuss unfamiliar words, relating it to something they have experienced before, as well as discussing the different contexts in which we can use that word.
  • Help to model the use of correct grammar by rephrasing the child’s incorrect utterance, e.g. “the mouses ran in the house.” Your response: “The mice ran into the house, did they?”

I hope you enjoy the resources!

Violetta Bassovitch
Speech-Language Pathologist, Gameplan